Sarah E. Dees

“Presence, Absence, Refusal: Race and Indigenous Religions in the Academy”

Dees 200 x 302For some scholars of religion, conversations about race might seem tangential—a sub-field, a special interest topic, a current fad. My work on the history of the study of Native American religions considers the extent to which racialization has always (already) been a part of the project of the academic study of religion—at once present and absent. Most religious studies method and theory courses include works by key European and Euro-American “founding fathers” who studied traditions scholars would now describe as “Indigenous religions.” Yet Indigenous religions occupy a marginalized position within other topics and conversations in many departments. Through this presentation, I hope to work through questions that arise in my own work on theories of Native religions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I consider the extent to which the early study of Native American religions was itself a form of racial science. In addition, I hope to foster a broader conversation about the ways Indigenous religions fit into the academic study of religion. An examination of Indigenous religions offers insight into issues at the heart of the academic study of religion—about method, theory, definitions of religion, and the relationship between the category of religion as it relates to broader culture and society. What legacies of early, explicitly settler-colonial scholarship linger in the refusal to adequately attend not only to Native religions but also to Native theories of religion? Looking closely at the history of the study of Native American religions today helps us better understand the relationships between the “studiers” and the “studied” and necessitates a serious consideration of the racialized undertones of this distinction. Who might theorize? What types of theories are valid or welcome in discussions about religion? What insights can critical race, ethnic, and cultural studies offer scholars of religion? How should we conceptualize the religious studies “canon” in light of our new perspectives on the field’s history?

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